Why Editing Matters

The Case of the Disappearing Editor,” which appears in the new issue of the online journal Talking Writing, was sparked by a recent flap over literary journals that require submission fees. (Such journals are primarily staffed by volunteers, and whatever staffers do get paid don’t get paid much.) Author Martha Nichols, Talking Writing‘s editor in chief, identifies a crucial issue that’s being overlooked in the flap:

I’m tired of how much the work of editors is ignored or has become invisible. It’s just as bad as devaluing writers. Actually, it’s worse, because a narrow focus on the payoff for writers ducks the question of how we maintain literary quality in the new media world.

In the battle over submission fees, what troubles me most is the idea that it’s unethical for other writers to subsidize those who do get their work published or the editors who help develop and promote that work. This viewpoint assumes that writers do everything and editors do nothing—or that editors and other publishing professionals shouldn’t care about working for free.

What follows is a thoughtful discussion of what editors and others in the word trades do and why it’s important in the evolving world of publishing and self-publishing.

I especially like this bit:

. . . editing has value to writers and to everybody who cares about quality and a wider audience for literature. I’m talking about literature in the broadest sense of that term: writing that moves people, that makes them think, that informs and illuminates. In a world where anyone can publish unfiltered text online, editing is a bulwark against opacity, fakery, apathy, and socially acceptable stupidity.

The whole thing is well worth reading and pondering.

While you’re there, check out Talking Writing‘s other offerings: essays, first-person journalism, stories, and poetry.


Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers

Having been at various times a reviewer, an anthology editor, a newspaper features editor, and a few other things, I think this is excellent advice for any writer who is trying to get another writer to do something for free. Online, offline, anywhere!

Creative State of Mind

Hello, everyone! It’s me again with another author advice post. Warning: This post isn’t for everyone. If you’re an author who finds etiquette posts tiresome, this post isn’t for you. If you’re already an expert on book marketing, this post will probably seem pretty basic, but I hope you’ll read on and add your advice in the comment section. This post is for people like me – people who came into the writing world with limited social media knowledge. It’s for people who didn’t realize book bloggers existed until they were told to go out and promote their book. If you’re intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of contacting reviewers and bloggers, or if you’ve sent requests to bloggers and only received a lukewarm response, this post is for you.

  1. DO read the blogger’s FAQs, Policies, or Submission Guidelines. Each blogger is different. Some bloggers want you to contact them by email. Others have…

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What Is Editing Worth?

Ask a bunch of editors what good editing is worth and they’ll probably reply that it’s invaluable, priceless, and indispensable.

Listen to us talk for a while and we’ll probably get around to the books we’ve read that were either abysmally edited or (probably) not edited at all. What’s the matter with those writers? we wonder. How can they put their names on something that’s so disorganized or riddled with typos and grammatical errors?

Being both a writer and an editor, I think about this a lot. “Value” is a shifty word in English. “Valuable” and “invaluable” mean more or less the same thing. Plenty of value can’t be measured in money, but when you have to pay for it, money has to be considered. Editing has monetary value to me as an editor because it pays the rent. For me as a writer, whatever I spend on editing is money I can’t spend on book design, cover illustration, and marketing. Besides, I can do it pretty well myself.

The inescapable fact is that editing can’t be automated. If some outfit promises to “edit” your 300-page manuscript for a dollar a page, you can be sure that they’re not doing much more than running a spellchecker and a grammar checker through it, and maybe cleaning up the formatting. In my book that’s not editing: it’s word-processing.

Depending on what level of editing is called for, editing involves going through your manuscript page by page, line by line, even word by word. This is not like reading for pleasure. It takes time. For a book-length work, it takes a lot of time. Hypothetical example: Take a 300-page,  75,000-word manuscript. (In publishing, a page is conventionally reckoned at 250 words.) If the ms. is well written and has no structural problems, a good copyeditor might be able to clock 10 pages per hour. That’s 30 hours’ worth of work. Say the copyeditor is charging $30 an hour. (Some charge more, some charge less, but you can get a good copyeditor for $30/hour.) That’s $900 right there.

A manuscript that, as we say in the trade, “has problems” will take longer to edit. At 5 pages/hour, that’s 60 hours. At $30/hour, that’s $1,800. If the problems are serious enough, you may have trouble finding an editor who’ll work for only $30/hour. There are few things more frustrating than being asked to copyedit a manuscript that has structural problems. It’s like frosting a cake that’s collapsed in the middle and didn’t taste all that good to start with.

I don’t know about you, but $1,800 would put a huge dent in my budget, even if I could pay it off over time. I’m never surprised when a writer has sticker shock at an estimate for editing. Editors can say that editing is “priceless” and “invaluable” because we’re not paying for it. When a service costs that much, “priceless” and “invaluable” go out the window. Writers who are paying out of pocket — and this includes me — are up against a harder question: “What is editing worth to me?”

It depends. It really is OK to say “not much” or “I’d love to hire an editor but I have to win the lottery first.” Here are some things to think about:

  • Do you want your work to be read by people who don’t have to read it? Do you want them to spend their hard-earned money on your book?

If the answer to these questions is no, you don’t need an editor, so editing may not be worth all that much to you. On the other hand, it might be. I spend my hard-earned money on things I don’t need. (Ask me about the two fountain pens I just scored off eBay. And don’t ask me how much money I’ve spent over the years on training and competing with my dog.)

If the answer is yes, or maybe, or “I’m not sure,” consider the following questions.

  • How good are you at spelling and punctuation?
  • How much experience have you got? How good are you, period? (Be honest now.)
  • Are you in a good writers’ group or otherwise sharing your work with competent and honest writers?
  • What are your plans for your work?
  • Is your work likely to bring in any money? Enough money to make editing worthwhile from a financial standpoint? (Be realistic here. If you’re writing fiction or poetry, the answer is probably no.)
  • What are your goals and priorities as a writer?

And here are some strongly held personal opinions on the subject:

If you aren’t a crackerjack speller and/or you aren’t confident with punctuation, you need help — especially if you plan to submit work to journals, agents, or publishers. These gatekeepers are swamped with far more submissions than they can use. They are looking for reasons to reject incoming manuscripts. Sloppy spelling and punctuation is painfully easy for a competent editor or agent to spot. You might be able to get the help you need from a talented amateur who won’t charge for her time. It depends on how talented and how generous your friends are.

An old printer’s adage: “Cost, speed, quality: Pick any two.” This means, for example, that if you spring for a low price and a fast turn-around time, the quality will probably be less than stellar. If you want a high-quality job done ASAP, expect to pay a premium price for it. This applies to writing too. If you the writer are willing to put in the time, in classes, writers’ groups, and/or self-study, you can get by with less editing. You will also be better able to choose the right editor for your work if you decide to hire one. Just sayin’ . . .

And here’s some free advice for anyone working solo on a book-length manuscript, fiction or nonfiction. Even if you’re cheap, even if your disposable income is barely in positive numbers — think seriously about hiring a pro to critique it. Critiquing costs a lot less than editing because the critiquer is reading your manuscript the way a reviewer might, not going through it line by line. The critiquer will identify both strengths and problems. She’ll probably have suggestions about fixing the problems — but it’s up to you to do the work.

I’ve read several novels in the last year or so that read like good first drafts. Lots of good raw material, but plot holes abounded. Characters did implausible things just because the author said so. Backstory was dumped here, there, and anywhere. Tantalizing leads were introduced — and then dropped. And so on. These are things that can be dealt with in revision, but these novels all went to press in various states of disarray. One of these novels, by the way, was published by a major trade publisher, probably on the strength of the author’s reputation in nonfiction.

Maybe that’s “good enough”? Maybe it is. But ask yourself: When you start reading a book and realize that the author has cut corners, do you keep reading? If you get through to the end, do you recommend the book to a friend? Do you write a glowing online review?

Good editing is expensive, but sometimes it really is worth the money. Your call.


No Need to Shout!!

99% of all editors, writing instructors, and experienced writers will tell you: “Use emphasis sparingly.” Emphasis includes ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, and italics. And exclamation points!!!

(OK, 99% is an unverified statistic. I made it up — you know, to emphasize my point.)

This is why our gatekeeper friends will relegate a manuscript to the slush pile if the first couple of pages include too many italicized, bolded, underscored, or ALL CAPPED words and phrases. Fairly or not, they’re leaping to the conclusion that the writer who relies heavily on gimmicks is not ready for prime time.

How many is “too many”? If they’re the first thing a person notices when she pulls your ms. out of the envelope or opens the file, that’s too many. Aim for “none” and you’ll probably get it about right.

“But,” you wail, “how do I show what’s important?”

Good question!

When we speak, we can emphasize words and phrases by speaking them more loudly, or drawing them out, or exaggerating their each and every syllable. We can use our hands and our faces to express our feelings or underscore a point.

You can replicate some of these methods in writing. You can describe how a character said something and/or what she was doing while she said it. Too much description, though, can slow a passage down when you want it to move right along. Lucky for all of us, written English offers some powerful tools to call attention to whatever you want to call attention to. and without using ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, italics, and other gimmicks. Learning to use them is part of the writer’s craft.

So how does one go about this?

Here’s where I advise even non-poets to read lots of poetry. Good poets make every word count. They have to: poems use fewer words than stories, essays, and full-length books. They read their written words aloud and pay attention to how they sound. Poets who work in traditional forms, like the sonnet, use meter and rhyme to emphasize important words. Words at the ends of lines and lines at the ends of stanzas get particular emphasis. And so on.

Prose writers use sentences and paragraphs the way poets use lines and stanzas. Words at the beginning and, especially, at the end of a sentence are emphasized. Likewise sentences at the beginning or end of a paragraph, and paragraphs at the beginning or end of a scene.

Have you ever confronted a paragraph that sits on the page like a dark gray lump? One sentence follows another with no break, maybe for a whole page or more. If the eye gives in to the natural temptation to skim through to the end, the mind is almost certainly going to miss something important.

But there’s no need to bold or italicize the sentence you want to call the reader’s attention to. If that paragraph belongs to you, try breaking it so that your key sentences fall either at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of another. If you’re reading it in a book, identify a place or two where author or editor might have started a new paragraph. (You may not find any such places. It’s possible that the paragraph really needed to be that long.)

I like long loopy sentences, but I also know that long sentences tend to lose energy. So I pay close attention to the words, phrases, and clauses that make them up. When I’m editing, I’ll sometimes break a compound sentence in two in order to focus more attention on each of its parts.

Here’s where the oft-repeated advice to “omit needless words” comes in handy. “Needless words” are the ones that camouflage or otherwise distract attention from the important stuff. What’s tricky is that you have to identify the important stuff before you can decide what’s needless, and this often doesn’t happen till a second or third draft.

The best way to develop your skill at emphasizing key points without resorting to gimmicks!! is by experimenting on your own work, getting feedback from editors and other writers, and giving feedback to other writers on their in-process work. Anyone out there have an example to share with other readers of this blog? Keep it fairly short, say 100 words or so. You can use either the comments link at the top of this post or the contact form in the “You!” tab on the menu bar.